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Military, Civilian Officials note Iraq’s Progress

If Iraqi security forces continue to improve at their current rate, the State Department will be able to meet its goal of taking over operations there when military forces leave at the end of the year, the senior U.S. military and civilian leaders in Iraq said here today.

U.S. forces “are joined at the hip” with Iraqi forces to ensure there are no gaps in security when U.S. operations there transition to an all-civilian effort, a milestone scheduled for October, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, commander of U.S. Forces Iraq, said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

Security is critical to long-term success in Iraq, and it is “the best it’s been in years,” the general said.

Iraqi forces, so far, are in a good position to stand alone, Austin said. While insurgents still carry out attacks there, overall violence was down 25 percent last year and continues to trend in that direction, he said.

Another good indicator, Austin said, was Iraqi forces’ performance during last year’s election and the subsequent months of work until a new national government was seated. Security continued to improve during that volatile time, he said, and Iraqi forces remained steady and apolitical.

“I’ve watched this force develop over time,” the general said. “They began with very little and, if you look at where they are now, it’s truly remarkable.”

Iraqi forces “do have the abilities to conduct internal defenses,” and have been in the lead on those for some time, Austin said. Their bigger challenge is in protection against external threats, and that will continue at least into 2013 as they build their air defenses, he said.

As coalition troops continue to train and develop Iraqi forces, they will focus on improving their logistical operations, fielding and training on new equipment, and intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination, he said.

“Clearly, there is much work left to do, but I am encouraged by the progress Iraq has made in the past few years and believe it will meet its goals if we continue on this sustained path,” Austin told the senators.

More than 100,000 troops have left Iraq, leaving just over 50,000 military and civilians. A U.S.-Iraqi agreement calls for all U.S. military to be out of Iraq by the end of the year, leaving only State Department civilians and contractors, many of whom will be Iraqis, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey said.

The civilian mission in Iraq will include about 17,000 civilians in 15 locations, including two consulate offices, two embassy branch offices, three air-defense hubs and three police training centers, Jeffrey said.

As they have for years, Jeffrey said, U.S. civilians are “getting outside the wire” to work with Iraqis under dangerous conditions. Today, he said, a provincial reconstruction team hit a roadside bomb as it was traveling out of Baghdad. “That’s a daily occurrence,” he said, “and it has been for years.”

Jeffrey said he is “very confident” in the military’s efforts to equip the civilians against attacks with such things as mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, early warning alarms, and reconnaissance assets. “There has been an extraordinary amount of effort by the military on all locations where we are taking over,” he said.

As for the Iraqi gap in air sovereignty, Jeffrey said, the State Department maintains an air wing with 20 aircraft in Iraq, and will double that number after the military leaves, he said.

Jeffrey and Austin appealed to the committee to provide the State Department with the resources to sustain progress in Iraq.

“We face a critical moment now in Iraq where we can step up to the plate and finish the job, … or risk our national security interests,” Jeffrey said.

Failure to complete the mission in Iraq, he said, would leave that country in a situation similar to that in Afghanistan when extremists took over when the United States withdrew support after the Soviets left.

The United States has paid “a dear price” in Iraq with more than 4,300 dead, Jeffrey said. “It’s vital we leave behind an Iraq worthy of the sacrifices of so many military and civilians,” he said.

The State Department role in Iraq is expected to last three to five years, the ambassador said.

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